Auntie, T, Auntie T, do you wanna play school with me? You’re the teacher. Auntie T, let’s play yoga. Auntie T, let’s play gymnastics, be the teacher! Auntie T, let’s play tag! Auuuuntieeeee Teeeee! I’m hiiiiiiiding. Auntie T, will you do a floor puzzle with me? Auntie T, let’s play tic-tac-toe. Let’s play school again. Yoga.Gymnastics.Tag.Hide-and-go-seek.Tic-tac-toe.Floor puzzles.Back to school!
I had somehow found myself in the middle of a five-hour repetitive cycle of Graceland, which is less Elvis Presley and more the inner workings of a four-year-old child named Grace. At the time, I was unemployed and only watching the kids for a few hours, so I figured I’d fully commit to the task, putting every ounce of attention and energy I had into the littlest Dinndorfs. How hard could it be?
Holy shit. These things do not turn off. I don’t think Grace stopped talking once. Well, except for the time I went to the bathroom and came out to find her coloring her hair with this weird hair paint I wasn’t quite sure was meant for real hair, but we were past the point of no return, so I told her it looked pretty, chunks and all.
The older I get, the more respect I have for the parental ability to keep it together, even if it’s just a facade. Never again will I question the mom with the cute little kid tugging on her coat, “Mom, mom, mom, mom, mom, mom,” while she’s more absorbed than any human should be in the throw pillows at Target. If you acknowledged every “Mom,” that would quite literally be the only thing you ever did for 24 hours a day, every day, for the rest of your life, period. In fact, with every “Mom,” it’s quite possible moms fall deeper absorbed into whatever’s in front of them, because as everyone knows, if you give a mouse a cookie…
But I adore this child. Back when I lived at the Dorf Haus, she’d wake me up every morning by silently shoving a candle in my face, which was Grace-speak for ‘light this thing so I can blow it out,’ repeat x5. Sometimes she’d just crawl quietly up onto the foot of the bed and creepily stare at me until I acknowledged her presence.
Now she comes downstairs and bangs a plastic hammer against a metal pole. (And yes, to answer your question, I am an adult woman who has frequent sleepovers at her adult friend’s house.)
When Lisa came home (finally) from work, I must have looked two steps away from a one-way ticket to crazy town because the first thing she said, “Ah, so, Grace was on all day?” Clearly, she’d been there. I stumbled out the door, drove home in a daze, eager to sit on my couch and quietly stare at my wall in silence.
Which is about the time my sister FaceTimed me, her tiny four-month-old cooing happily from her lap. I wanted to scream at her, RUN!! I’VE SEEN YOUR FUTURE!! IT’S EXHAUSTING! But I refrained, because no one needs to hear that shit. Besides, she just wanted to share the happy news: Hallmark had started airing their holiday specials!
It was the first week in November. I mean, why stop at the infamous 25 day countdown when you can hook people for 50? Especially since, and I think most of us can agree, the thought of the holidays, the idea of Christmas, is almost always so much more satisfying than any of our realities.
Over consumption of fake snowfall at all the perfect moments, quirky yet strangely functional families, and adorably romantic endeavors that always work out, really leaves us little choice but to waltz into the holidays with completely ridiculous expectations. Usually Reality trips us on our way out the front door and laughs in our face. So who wouldn’t want to start the approach that much sooner, provide some extra cushion for our inevitable letdown?
My obsession with these super cheesy holiday flicks began somewhere around the time my own Christmas lost it’s magic by way of adulthood, and I turned to outside sources to keep it alive. That’s right, I outsource my holiday happiness. Adult Christmas is a lot of work, nothing like the fond memories of your childhood, especially if you have no children for which to be sculpting memories. Getting through the holidays with Hallmark is sort of like living vicariously through anyone else on the internet, but it’s also sort of like coming home. Home to a place that won’t disappoint you (they’re stupidly predictable), to people you’ve never met (and let’s be honest, probably never want to meet, except for that dude in Window Wonderland…he’s pretty neat), yet feel like family. Year after year, they reliably show up in all the classics. And I’m definitely abusing the term “classic,” by referring to smash hits such as (but not limited to): Holiday in Handcuffs, The 12 Dates of Christmas, Holidaze, and basically anything starring Lacey Chabert or Candace Cameron.
During one of my recent Dorf Haus sleepovers, which also happens to be a safe place to binge on terrible holiday movies (admit it, you’d be a regular too), my brain started connecting all the super obvious dots, dots that have been there for years.
So there’s this one common storyline seen in multiple movies across all networks, in which the leading lady has a super chaotic family life where absolutely everything seems to go wrong in the first 20 minutes. Then she hits her head in a small variety of uncreative ways and the rest of the movie is spent living the life she could have had: single sans kids with a successful career, freedom and money, always tons of money, big city living and usually a cat. At first she loves it, then she sees the gaping empty black hole that her life in the fast lane represents, and eventually realizes how much she loves her crazy family. POOF she wakes up, back in the suburbs, surrounded by the chaotic life she was wishing away just minutes before, now for which she has a whole new appreciation. MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE! AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT!
Oh, except you single ladies with solid careers, freedom and felines. You go back to being the lonely, pathetic creatures you obviously are, in your gaping, empty, black holes.
Sitting there with Lisa, I realized how together, we sort of represented both sides of this fictional Hallmark life.
“I meeeeean, do they really have to portray the non-family life so…negatively?”
“Yeah, I was wondering if you were taking this personally.”
I mean, first of all, come on. If you already have a loving husband and children and were suddenly forced to live a life without them, of course you’re going to miss them and want them back. If you didn’t, Hallmark would certainly not be the channel promoting your messed-up mind, you horrible human. I mean, I would NEVER choose a life without Grace and Luke, and they aren’t even my children. But, let the record show, I did not feel like I entered the lonely despairs of hell when I entered my own home. I felt…great. Relieved. Peaceful. Happy to be back in my black hole.
See, I don’t have a problem with the way these stories all inevitably end, with appreciation and love for the chaotic family life. “You don’t know how good you got it ’til it’s gone” is a real thing, affecting all walks of life. I absolutely adore the little slices of chaotic family life I get from my close friends and brother and sister’s nuclear families; without them, I too might be sad and lost. It’s just that they make these “other” paths seem so…cold. So empty. The single, successful, financially independent, free woman is without fail, bitchy, lonely and downright scary. She has the predictable cat instead of the predictable family dog. She doesn’t have many friends apart from the doorman at her fancy apartment building, her eager assistant or elderly neighbor. She never seems to get along with her family and she’s alienated most of the friends she’s ever had. She’s not just without a husband and family, she’s completely and utterly a l o n e.
Holidays (especially of the Hallmark variety) are about family, so it’s totally natural this is the focus of these movies. No one wants to see a Christmas movie about a single gal in her late 30s, living with her cats, working from home, making delicious meals for one, swiping right (mostly left) from her couch, drinking wine, having adult sleepovers judging Hallmark holiday movies, totally digging her life choices. I mean, who would watch that?
But maybe next year, Hallmark, consider lightening up on the ‘alternative life’ scenarios. You know, make them seem like more of a choice rather than a horrible mistake.
K thanks, bye.
I’ve never been one for reality TV. Well, except for the early seasons of MTV’s Real World, that stuff was binge-worthy. I just think it’s weird to watch other people getting paid to live their life from my couch, when I’d rather be doing something with my own. But back when Emily and I were hiking the AT, we became straight-up obsessed with the Bachelorette. Emily would calculate mileage and days of food we needed to carry to ensure we’d hit town days on Monday nights, which we would then spend in some fancy B&B, drinking wine and eating cheese, brains empty, unblinking at Chris Harrison for like, two hours. I mean, it’s easy to become obsessed with stupid shit out there when what you’re really trying to do is forget about the constant pain, the bottomless hunger, and the fact you’re carrying ten extra pounds of your own cat pee flavored sweat every day.
Fame. I refuse to believe there is any other logical reason people would willingly go on a show like the Bachelor/ette. I mean seriously, isn’t it hard enough out there? How can you possibly think going on TV to fight 30 other beautiful people for one beautiful person is a good idea? Just join Tinder and be thankful for silent rejections and the ability to passive aggressively weed through the weirdos in private, like the rest of Single America. But we faithfully watched anyway, knowing full well we’d never get those life hours back.
The day finally came I was grateful for every single second I put into that nonsense. Because without that knowledge, I’d be confused as hell as to what happened earlier this year, when I unknowingly participated in my very own season of the Bachelorette. Just like on TV, I was wooed with adventures and careless freedom, endless boxes of wine, fancy dinners cooked on a propane stove, standing on the edge of the world (er, the Grand Canyon). Except there was only ever one eligible bachelor: the Purple Squirrel.
Oh, what a glorious month we shared! Living in a van, wandering from Colorado to California, no responsibilities, no worries at all, operating within the hours of the sun, the open road begging us to choose our own adventure. We hiked in Joshua Tree, stargazed in Moab, climbed around Zion. Cozy breakfasts watching snow fall in the mountains of Colorado, sunrise coffee hikes in the Arches, wine-soaked sunset dinners in Southern California. Who wouldn’t fall in love? We explored the Southwest quickly, as slow as we could, knowing I’d soon start my long walk to Canada. Knowing this would eventually all feel like a distant dream. Knowing you can never quite go back to the way it was.
Just like the Bachelor/ette and the “winner” of the Bachelor/ette must remain publicly separated until the finale episode (a significant time period in which we all know a bunch of shit happens), I started walking alone toward Canada without the Purple Squirrel. The longer I walked, the farther I walked away from whatever we had. I’m not even sure I can pinpoint when it happened. But it definitely happened. I remember at one point trying to peer back into my past life chapters thinking, wait…did I get that right? I mean, the month went by pretty quick and it was filled with a bunch of awesomeness and very little of Life in My Real World. At the time, I didn’t have to think about what made sense for my latter future, because my immediate future was hiking the PCT, where I found myself hanging out with friends I had literally just met, yet eventually knew them longer and better than I knew my supposed sig other. And I found I enjoyed them just as much, sometimes more, even. So I started thinking, maybe the Purple Squirrel was a product of my life situation and not so much the actual human.
But I felt things! I swear to you, I really felt all the things. I know this because I told other people, and they believed me! I don’t exactly gush with emotions about my romantic life, so when I gush, people notice, and I guess this time I gushed. Maybe it was because it aligned with quitting my job; I was free, excited to begin a new adventure, any adventure, so many feels rolling through. Maybe I just went with it without proper processing. Maybe I shouldn’t pretend to know what happened, maybe I shouldn’t try to figure it out. Now I just refer to it as the Bachelorette Effect:
Bachelorette World Feelings ≠ Real World Feelings
As a general rule, I don’t write about active relationships for this very reason. I know I don’t have the best track record, and I’d rather not eat my words or be held accountable for my feelings. I prefer to just tell you about them later, like they never really happened at all. You know, safety first. But, that ship has sailed and here I am, drowning just off the shore of some weird island.
When I got home from the PCT, I received an email from a reader I connected with back when I was preparing to hike the AT. She read between the lines I wasn’t writing.
By the way, what happened to your Purple Squirrel? Did he turn brown?
Man, some people just get me. Her reference made me smile, but it also made me think.
Ah, you are very observant, and that analogy made my day. I think we’re both sort of struggling to figure out what happened there. I don’t think HE turned brown, but when I got back from the hike, I just realized I wasn’t into purple anymore. It really bummed me out, because I was so excited about the idea of him. But when I got home, I just saw him in a different light, through a different lens, and I couldn’t shake it.
So the Purple Squirrel didn’t exactly turn brown; my definition of purple just…changed. I keep telling myself there’s a difference.
And now? I’m sad. I’m disappointed. I’m scared. Sad because it didn’t work out. Disappointed because I really wanted it to work. I genuinely thought it was going to for a hot minute, for the first time in like, a decade, and it sort of feels like I let myself down. Like I can’t be trusted. Which really sucks. Like, I made a choice or something, and this feels nothing like a choice. And scared of my feelings, how quickly they can change. How could I have such intense feelings about someone, just to watch them evaporate? I could literally feel them leaving my body as I hiked north. I even tried to reason myself back into them for over a thousand miles.
The worst part is, I can’t even offer him an explanation other than: I just don’t feel the same way anymore. Because that’s exactly what it is. And I can’t force something to be there when it isn’t. I can’t be with someone just because of how I apparently used to feel. Because of all the nice things I once wrote, describing those feelings. For whatever reason, I don’t feel that way now. And I can’t pretend. I am a terrible pretender, ask anyone. He didn’t do any one thing wrong. No one did anything wrong.
I just hiked 2,650 miles and came out a different person.
A few years ago, my basement was ripe with conditions for mold: dark, dank, moist; basically a five-star hotel for the furry growth of minute fungal hyphae. To alleviate the situation, all I really had to do was pop over to the store and get a dehumidifier, but for some reason I found that task extremely challenging. Instead, I put it on the To Do List, the To Buy List, the Must Do Before Europe List, all of The Lists, and avoided the act of completion every chance I got. I knew the longer I let it go, the more mold was likely to collect; that the solution was quite easy now and would be more difficult later, but nope. I simply pretended it wasn’t a real issue, though it so obviously was. I refused to face it, to admit it: the mold, the task, the truth, all of it. Finally my friend Christina, who was staying with me at the time and had stored a thing or two in the basement, brought home a dehumidifier in justifiable frustration, bringing my avoidance dance to an end. Guiltily relieved, I crossed it off the list(s).
So I’m a procrastinator. But not about big things. About stupid things. I kind of have this thought if you ignore something long enough, it will just go away. For example, the more cat poop that piles up, the less I want to empty the litter box. I know there will be even more poop tomorrow. Logic tells me I should just clean it today. But I don’t. Because, you know…tomorrow. I’m actually what you might call a master procrastinator. I often disguise the act in such a way I don’t even know I’m procrastinating.
Somewhere along the Pacific Crest Trail, I decided not to worry about writing until I reached Canada. It was stressing me out, I never had service and rarely had time. When I get home, I said, I’ll pick it up again. This is the longest I’ve gone without writing in over four years. And just like the mold, it’s on all the lists, jostling for attention, but something else always purposefully takes precedence. I’ve cleaned my house from top to bottom, purged all the closets, done all the yard work. I’ve visited family and friends in other cities, other states, people I haven’t seen in a decade. I’ve avoided my laptop entirely, because it just reminds me of what I am not doing with it. I even went as far as to get a job. Anything to avoid being alone in my house with my computer, because then I’d have to get real creative with my excuses.
Maybe my avoidance tactics look relatively normal from the outside. I mean, who doesn’t want a super (duper) clean house, to see friends and family (especially babies named Henry!), and (this is a stretch) a regular income? But I can see my underlying motive poking out from the inside.
I mean, why do people procrastinate? Maybe the task appears too great, too big, too difficult. Maybe it’s the fear of failure, or the thought you won’t be good enough. Other times you just really don’t want to do it, whatever it is (cat poop). In the mold situation, who knows, maybe I was embarrassed to admit how long I had let it go, so I looked the other way, hoping it would solve itself. Which it did. Kinda.
And now? I don’t want to face my feelings, obviously. I love writing, I need to write, it brings me to a place I feel at home, connected, whole, a place where shit starts to make sense. It’s not that I don’t have anything to write, it’s that I have all the things to write. But if I’m being honest, I don’t want to be honest. While some people feel all the feels while doing something big, like hiking 2,650 miles across the country (or at least they pretend to), I struggle to feel things in the moment, like really feel them. I’m one of those weirdos who lives for the anticipation and the reflection and I’m all like, meh, during the big show. And I’m not ready to unravel all the packages I so neatly bundled up and sent myself to open later.
But I have like 8,432 metaphorical boxes blocking my every move, so I have to start somewhere. Thru-hiking is the worst. And it’s the best. It’s all the things. All the different things to all the different people. And I thought it would be okay this time, because I knew how it ended. I’ve been on both sides and understood what was waiting for me. But sometimes you walk deep into the wilderness at total peace, thinking you got it all figured out, and when you walk out you’re all like, oh my, I think I need a therapist or something. Shit gets real out there in the woods.
You know that feeling you get when you’re trying to remember a word? Or recall the name of a person or a place? It’s just on the tip of your tongue, you can’t quite grab it, you can’t hear it, can’t see it, but you can feel it somewhere inside, you know it’s there…yet…it feels so frustratingly far away?
That’s how I feel right now, but with life. I’m so close, but equally far away. In reference to what, you ask? Good question, I say. I have no damn clue.
And would you look at that. I’m procrastinating writing this very moment, by writing about procrastination. Master procrastinator.
Time to sort through this mess in my head. You’re in for a reeeal treat.
You’re starting when? But the desert will be too hot by then! You’ll die out there! You’re not skipping the Sierras? Haven’t you heard about all the snow? The rivers are raging! You’ll die out there!
It hasn’t been an easy year for the class of 2017 PCT thru-hikers. Most of us started paying close attention to the weather in California months before our hikes began, watching as the snow in the mountains fell. And fell. And fell and fell. We saw the pictures of snowed-in Mammoth, heard ski resorts were predicting the season would extend through July, knowing the PCT came within miles of these areas. So we tried reasoning with ourselves: Um, sooo this means a lot of water in the desert…right?
Start too late, the desert heat will melt your soul. But start too early and the Sierras will swallow you whole. Either way, you better make it through Washington before it starts snowing in the Cascades.
People on and off the internet were ablaze with “information” on how to handle a 2017 thru-hike: when to start, how to beat the desert heat, whether or not to skip the Sierras, crampons or microspikes, which creeks were passable, which creeks would sweep you away if you so much as looked at them. Early thru-hikers posted accounts of their experiences in the Sierras, how river crossings ended their hikes and nearly their lives. We listened to a hiker, providing trail magic in Agua Dulce when the Sierras proved too much for him, tell us how they were impassable and anyone attempting this year is crazy and would basically die.
When you’re sweating on mile 454 of the desert, the snowy Sierras 300 miles away seem impossibly far, a chapter in another book. As we hiked along, we continued to hear about people skipping north to Oregon or Northern California, leaving the Sierras early, or quitting all together, not paying too much attention, yet still hoping for at least one success story. Which, is sort of funny, because just as one person failing doesn’t mean everyone will fail, one person succeeding doesn’t mean everyone will succeed. But it does mean it’s possible.
There wasn’t a whole lot we could do about the snow or the rivers, so we did the only thing we could do: take on the trail in front of us, one day at a time. We aimed for a respectable date to enter the Sierras, June 21, six days after the supposed recommended date to enter the Sierras on a normal snow year, and kept walking north.
There were basically three groups of people we heard from before we hit the silence of the Sierras: people whose job it is to care, like family, friends, organizations concerned for your safety; people who simply parrot information they’ve heard, trying to be helpful; and people who tried and failed, and because they couldn’t do it, you probably shouldn’t even try.
With all due respect internet, people of the internet, random strangers at Agua Dulce, you don’t know the stuff I’m made of. You don’t know my skill set, my secret powers, my capabilities, my breaking points, how willing I am to be outside my comfort zone, what my zone of comfort even is. How can you assume, based solely on your own personal experiences, or worse, things you’ve read on the internet, that I’ll fail when I haven’t even been given the chance to succeed? And seriously, if the first time I am hearing about all this snow in the Sierras is from a comment on one of my Instagram posts, we have a whole ‘nother issue.
If I lived my life according to other people’s limits, how would I ever test my own? How can I discover where my own boundaries lay, if I never try to reach them? If you picture your life boundaries and comfort zones as a circle around your body, mine has a bunch of hand indentations pressing around the perimeter from where I’ve pushed myself. It’s even got a few holes where I’ve successfully punched through those comfort zones, making room for a whole new bubble of boundaries and limits.
Besides, fears are almost always more terrifying than reality. Yes, the Sierras were an awesomely difficult challenge. I look back at some of the things I did, things even I might not believe if I hadn’t been there, standing on top of that pass, or on the other side of that river. I remember on some of the scarier passes (icy, steep, slushy, etc.), assessing the situation, taking a deep breath and moving forward, one small calculated step at a time, taking care not to look down the steep slope on my right, or the steep slope I could reach out and touch on my left, just straight ahead at the footsteps cut into the snow ledge. Plunge ice axe, step. Repeat until complete. Then look back at your accomplishment. We spent hours hiking through snowfields and over sun cups where a wrong step or the slip of a foot could ruin your day or end your hike.
And the rivers were no joke, especially when you’re 5’4″, rocking a 125 pound trail weight. On one river crossing, Snap and I watched G wade up to his chest in water, which meant over our heads, and opted to find a safer crossing. We hiked almost three miles upstream where the river just got wider and deeper before we found an even close to manageable way, which basically involved Snap tossing me to G like a rag doll. On another crossing, the current proved a bit too much for my frame and before I even realized what was happening, G had my runaway trekking poll in one hand and was holding me up by my backpack with the other. I have no idea how he remained standing, or how he managed to pull me across. On still another, I crossed a calm but very deep stream and started to float when the water reached my backpack, involuntarily removing my feet from the bottom. As I casually began drifting downstream, I just started awkwardly swimming toward the other side where another hiker helped pull me out. And don’t get me started on the sketchy logs. Some of those were scarier than the actual water.
On our final pass in the Sierras, a hiker behind us lost control and unintentionally began his glissade. I watched in horror as he headed straight for a rock patch, bounced off, seemingly head first. I heard him hit. I thought for sure he was unconscious, or much, much worse. Remarkably, he walked away with a scratched leg.
So yeah, shit got real out there. But in talking with other hikers, you quickly realize everyone’s experience was different. A typical conversation in the Sierras:
How in the world did you get across Tyndall?
Oh that, we found a log a bit downstream. But how did you get across Mono?
Oh, there was a log a bit upstream.
We talked with a group who said they never crossed a river with water above their knees (Actually, I believe what they said was, “The water never went balls deep,” which is apparently important if you’re a dude.) Point is, our individual choices combined with our individual abilities determined our individual experiences.
The PCT is full of all kinds of people. People with lots of experience in outdoor situations, people with little to no experience, and all the people in between. I met a man who waited two hours for another person to show up because he couldn’t find his way out of the campsite. So when organizations like the PCTA put out warnings about conditions, they are talking to all of these people. And those individuals must decide for themselves how capable they are to tackle the challenges in front of them. Because the PCTA, like most people, has no idea what your skill level is and what you’re capable of…only you know that.
So even if I personally thought it was crazy (for my taste) to enter the Sierras in May or even early June, especially as a solo hiker, I would never tell anyone else not to do so, because I have no idea who you are or what you can do. California has been in a drought for the past five years or more (don’t quote me on that) so maybe we hikers forgot something basic: high mountains are supposed to have snow. If you attempted to enter the Sierras in May in a record snow year, you probably shouldn’t have been surprised at all the snow and subsequent snow melt (i.e. rivers), and hopefully had the skills and confidence to tackle them. Still, shit happens, that I know.
Our days in the Sierras were hard work and slow going, but definitely doable. And yeah, I’ll probably still pee my pants a little every time I hear a rushing river, intimidated by the thought of finding a safe place to cross, but overall, I’m so happy we ignored the fear mongering and naysayers and hiked through, testing our own limits, creating new boundaries. I’m especially grateful for my hiking partners, G and Snap, for ensuring I came out alive on the other end. (I’m no idiot, I trapped some good ones early.) We were able to see the Sierras in a light perhaps not many do.
If you skipped this year, I totally respect that, but I hope you did so based on your own limits and boundaries, not those of someone else. Don’t let anyone put you in a box. Draw your own. Then punch some holes in it, of course.
I can’t remember when I started pretending Mother Nature and I were BFFs, but I truly started believing it on the Appalachian Trail. The moment we stepped out of my friend Erin’s car to hike the first 400 strenuous steps of the Approach Trail, the sky opened her spout and the rain came pouring out. I pulled out my very ridiculous (but incredibly useful) looking bright blue tarp poncho/pack cover, and reminded myself that this is what I signed up for, the AT is notoriously wet, I should probably get used to it.
Around mile four of sloshing around in my shoes with a 30 pound pack on my back, convincing myself I was having a great time, I started pleading with her.
Listen, Mother Nature, you know me. I love a good storm. I don’t even mind hiking in the rain. I like it actually. It makes me move a little faster, provides motivation.The only thing that really sucks is setting up and taking down in the rain. If we can work around those two times, you and I will have a beautiful friendship.
We had delightful weather for the next four and a half months.
After days of mild desert hiking my first week on the PCT, blown away by the beauty of the morning, I mentioned our weather luck to a fellow hiker from Holland. He looked at me like I was nuts. Clearly he had a different idea of “beautiful weather.”
We laughed at our disagreement, and then he asked, “Have you ever thought, maybe it’s your attitude that makes the weather so nice?”
I wandered up the trail trying to recall if the weather on the AT was really as good as I remembered. I mean, sure, we had some cold mornings, freezing nights, hot afternoons, days so humid that breathing felt like drowning. And yeah, it rained on us, soaking us to the bone, to the point you start trudging through the shin deep puddles and mud because you already have trench foot, what’s one more puddle? And the storms rolled in, and the storms rolled out.
But I guess I remember these things happening at the most convenient of times. Like while walking our last few miles into town. Or on our zero days. Or right after we packed up camp. I remember literally run-hiking nine miles in two hours through Shenandoah to try to beat the storm the ranger warned us about, you better just stay here, she said, you’ll never make it to the next campground, but it was only noon and we weren’t done yet. Plus, what a fun challenge! We hiked our asses off, zipped up our tent with the clap of the first giant thunder, and shared a high-five, panting like puppies on a hot summer day. Then we celebrated with wine, cribbage and blackberry pie at the lodge (yes, of course this was our real motivation).
On the days that really mattered though, boy did Mother Nature do us a solid. Right before we entered the Great Smoky Mountains, we stayed with a local who told us there were five incredible views the Smokies were known for, but we would never see all five because the damn weather never holds for anyone’s entire 72 mile trip through it. We had five, beautiful, clear days of magic. We summited Mount Washington, known for the worst weather in the world, on a sunny summer day. Katahdin was a dream, the Whites were perfection. And hey, I can count the times I had to pack a wet tent on my left hand. Maybe Mother Nature was listening after all.
Looking back, the inclement weather added to my experiences, I didn’t let it take away from them. So maybe my fellow hiker had a point. I’ve walked nearly 600 miles of Southern California, and I’m still waiting for the dreadful desert of my imagination to appear, an image born from the words of others and countless warnings of heat and misery. And so far…it’s been lovely; the views outstanding, the heat quite bearable. Only now I can’t be sure if that’s real, or just my reality. Perhaps part Mother Nature, part me?
I guess it doesn’t matter. I once heard the difference between an obstacle and adventure is attitude, and I prefer to fill my life with one of those things.
(Pssst, Mother Nature, if you are listening, I know you’re aware of the situation you’ve created in the Sierras. I’ll be there in about a week, just a heads up.)
Somewhere deep in the wilderness of Connecticut on the Appalachian Trail, I had to go. Emily and I were taking a lunch break right before a steep, rocky five-mile descent, and this was pretty much my last chance. I scurried a bit further into the woods and stepped over a giant log, my foot landing on a large black duffle bag, creating a sort of clinking glass sound.
Well that’s weird. Next to the duffle was another tote, full of pots and pans and other odds and ends. Why in the world would something like that be way out here? But when I have to go, I have to go. With little time to spare, I called Emily to come investigate. When you’ve walked over a thousand miles on the same trail, random duffle bags in the wilderness are like gossip magazines in a long line at the grocery store, all of a sudden extremely interesting.
As I turned my back to the next giant fallen tree and popped a squat, we pondered aloud what could be inside. Emily was a few feet from the bags when I saw her eyes get bigger than any eyes I have ever seen before, and will ever see again. She pointed at what I could only assume was behind me, because why would she point at me? She knew what I was doing.
So, in my very compromised position, I turned my head around to see what all the fuss was about.
A shaggy, blonde, bespectacled head had popped up from behind the log, the very same log my ass was pointed at, about to, well, you know.
I like to think I reacted the way any human would if they walked into a private bathroom stall, shut the door, sat on the toilet, and heard a “Psst” in their ear just as they were about to go.
“I’M POOPING!!!!” I shouted, with all the emotions.
“Oh, sorry,” the head replied, laying back down behind the log from which it came.
“Well, not anymore,” I needlessly commented as I hurried to pull up my skirt, grab my pack and catch up with Emily who had already run down the trail in tears.
The moral of that story is: you’re never alone on a long distance wilderness trail. Even when you’re 100% sure you are, even if you haven’t seen another person in eight hours, especially when you see “abandoned” duffle bags in the forest. Feeling lonely on the PCT? Just try to take a pee in the open desert, or on one of those never ending exposed cliff edges, someone is guaranteed to come around the corner and catch you midstream.
A few weeks after summiting Katahdin, when only the good memories remained and the hard times no longer seemed that hard, I started ingesting all the information I could find on the internet about the PCT. I wanted to know everything. Was it similar to the AT? What was different? How? Why? Again and again I read that aside from both being long distance hiking trails, basically everything was different. I was annoyed, unsatisfied. That answer didn’t help quench my thirst for information at all. But after 19 days and 370 miles, I get it. It’s like trying to compare my bicycle to my car. They’re both modes of transportation, but there’s really no point in laying out their similarities beyond that.
For me, the biggest difference so far has been embarking on this adventure without my dear friend and hiking partner. I feel Emily’s absence on the trail every day. Like when I struggle to reattach my pee rag to my pack (you learn to do everything with a pack on your back) and she’s not there to help me. Yeah, I know, she’s a really good hiking partner. Or when I stretch my arms on the trail and no one behind me tells me to put them down (though I’m sure they are thinking it), that I smell like an onion. Or when I get to the top of a hard climb and wait for nothing in particular, until I realize I am waiting for someone who is never coming. When I point at a plant (like, all the plants) and wonder aloud what it is, no one makes an educated (or more often, accurate) guess, and then tells me all about how it can be used in the wilderness. When I make odd comments in my awful British accent and no one responds in a slightly less awful British accent. When I stroll into town and try to convince whoever I’m with that town days are about drinking wine in bed and watching the Bachelorette or Game of Thrones in fancy B&Bs. When I take a photo and have no hiker model to give it meaning. When the sun is still up as I roll into camp and I get excited about cribbage time, and realize my cribbage partner is across the country.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy hiking solo, it’s just a total different experience. I love hiking by myself, being alone with my thoughts, moving at my own pace, having just myself to let down. But part of me also feels a bit guilty. I’m fully aware I wouldn’t be taking these steps if it weren’t for Emily. A few years ago when she asked me to hike the AT, her true desire was really the PCT, but a friend suggested if she wanted to hike both (or go for that elusive Triple Crown), start with the AT. You’ll see why (I totally see why). And now I’m here and she’s not. I’m living out one of her dreams, and she can’t (yet). And that sucks.
But the thing about Emily, she would hate that I feel guilty. So I have to passive aggressively write about feeling guilty. The kind of hiking partner who is willing to handle another woman’s pee rag is definitely one who wants that other woman to crush it, pretty much always, no matter what the situation.
No, I am not alone out here, yet I feel a unique loneliness all the same. I didn’t start writing this as a love letter to the best adventure buddy out there, but it definitely turned into one.
Miss ya, Em.
Six weeks ago, from a sailboat in the middle of the Bahamas, the Purple Squirrel sent an email to The Other Fork in the Road, crossing oceans and continents before reaching me in the Arctic Circle, and now I live in his van. Sometimes you just gotta reach out and grab the random bits of confetti life throws in your direction.
When I first opened the email-read-round-the-world, I was easing into my four hour early morning layover in Frankfurt en route to Finland. I had quite literally nothing to do but stalk my new pen pal, so I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. The very first piece of information the internet coughed up was that he may or may not live in a van.
(!!!) I repeat (!!!)
I immediately closed my laptop and skeptically side-eyed everyone within side-eyeing distance, as if someone was playing a dirty trick on me. I don’t know when exactly I started dreaming of life on the road, but purchasing my rooftop tent was no accident. I had big plans for my Tonka truck. I drew detailed pictures in my head of how I would arrange my belongings inside the FJ to best accommodate my bike, snowboard and outdoor gear. How I would organize and reduce my world to whatever could fit atop of four wheels. How I would shit, shower and shave at Flying J’s, Pilots, gas stations across the country, living on simple meals and water, things that could survive in a cooler.
And here was this guy, already out there living his version of a similar dream, reaching out with a simple but effective email (Subject: Forking Awesome) summed up, “Hi. I’m, preeeetty sure we should be friends.” The more research (stalking) I did, the more dots connected and the more convinced I became my new pen pal did indeed live in a van, and that’s how I came to be sitting outside in Kanab, Utah at a high school track, writing this post while the Purple Squirrel (aka Van Man) runs calculated laps, exercising more than any human should, in preparation for an Ironman. I’m perfectly content to be the one sitting in the bleachers, my chosen form of bodily punishment quickly approaching.
When the Van Man offered to road trip me from Denver to Campo, the southern terminus of the PCT, it was quite literally impossible for me to turn him down. I mean, seriously, an opportunity to live in a van for three weeks whilst road tripping to the next big adventure in my life with a perfect stranger? The trifecta of obvious yes’s. The fact Van Man magically morphed into a Purple Squirrel was an unexpected bonus, like winning both showcases on The Price Is Right, because if I’m being honest, what intrigued me most was meeting the well-built van that grew from his creative mind and capable hands.
Her name is Little E, and she is beautiful.
Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail prepared me for many things in my future I couldn’t have possibly known back then, one of them being van life. Living out of a backpack for five months makes van life seem almost luxurious, especially if you live in a van like Little E. She’s got it all. A roomy fridge that can easily store delicious fresh fruits and vegetables, bacon and eggs, all the cheese and meats you can possibly imagine. And beer. All the beer. You’re still technically packing it in and out, just not on your back. Cuisine possibilities are endless, except if you need an oven. Then the cuisine possibilities end.
She’s got hot water, a kitchen sink, an outdoor and indoor shower that all but disappears when not in use. She’s got a cozy warm bed, lighting for every mood, surround sound, heat, swivel chair seating, ample storage, outlets, USB and solar power to keep your life supercharged. Only *slightly* better than trail life, which has pretty much none of those things.
And we should talk about the toilet. A speckled white, odorless, tucked away piece of beautifully functional plastic that rolls out to store my #1s, and rolls in while composting my #2s. It is easily my favorite thing inside this van at all times. I gaze lovingly as it rolls from its storage cubby, often resisting the urge to hug its oblong body, usually just settling for a meaningful pat, softly whispering, “I’m so glad you’re here,” before sending it back into hiding. Seriously, if you’re going to live in a van, don’t forget the toilet. Your it’s an emergency! shits, early morning pees, it’s too cold/raining/snowing outside bathroom needs will thank you.
There are challenges, sure. Reduced space and limited cooktops change the way you think about meal prep. Van Man’s been living in the van since October 2016, so he’s had some time to perfect his routine, but I’ve cooked like two meals in three weeks, and I’m pretty sure he’s a wizard.
Yeah, it’s sort of weird doing your business directly behind the chef preparing breakfast in the kitchen, but trust me, you get over that real quick. Just turn up the music and pretend you’re drinking your coffee, reading the morning paper like everyone else on a Sunday morning. Only with a much better view.
When your entire home is contained in a 144 WB Sprinter Van, with roughly 70 square feet of livable space, your body eventually adjusts, learns to dance around the corners that bashed your knee the first 226 times, around the other human body also occupying that space, up and over the natural curves of your new home. You quickly find your place, your spot, the one that makes you smile as you observe the entirety of your existence and sigh when you realize absolutely nothing is missing. (Except a van cat. I hope you’re ready for retirement, Elsa.)
But there’s more. You don’t shower every day (bonus!) and you get to wear your favorite outfit like, all of the time. You can drive for hours or stay for days. You can climb onto the roof with sleeping bags to watch the sunset or stargaze and unsuccessfully point out the North Star and all the constellations you thought you knew, but really, really don’t. You can set up camp chairs in the middle of the desert at dusk, scanning the endless terrain with binoculars, searching for coyotes disguised as jackrabbits. You can turn up the heat and listen to the pitter of rain patter turn to snow, watching as it softly blankets the forest ground next to the Grand Canyon in May. You can park on a cliff ledge outside of Moab and watch the light change the landscape, a new view every few minutes. You can be anywhere, go everywhere.
In five days, I start physically walking toward Canada. But mentally, I’m headed straight for Little E.
In between traveling Europe and hiking the Appalachian Trail, my consulting firm offered me a part time gig recruiting folks. In that extremely short week I learned two valuable bits of information: active recruiting is not my thing, and the meaning of the purple squirrel.
According to Wikipedia:
“Purple squirrel” is a term used by employment recruiters to describe a job candidate with precisely the right education, set of experience, and range of qualifications that perfectly fits a job’s requirements. The implication is that over-specification of the requirements makes a perfect candidate as hard to find as a purple squirrel.
Right now you’re probably thinking, so, that means pretty much impossible, right? Because purple squirrels don’t exist. Wait. Do purple squirrels exist? I’m glad you asked. Wikipedia has something to say about actual purple squirrels as well.
In 1997 a purple squirrel was spotted in Minnesota, then again on May 4, 2016. I mean, that actually isn’t hard to believe, not in the home of the Vikings, Prince and Purple Rain. In fact, one theory suggests the 2016 purple squirrel was dyed by fans of Prince, who died a few weeks earlier.
In 2008, Pete the purple squirrel was seen bopping about Meoncross School in Stubbington, Hampshire in the U.K. Some people tried to explain away his magical fur as a result of his stomping grounds, a building with old photocopiers; Pete just had a thing for toner cartridges. But the real believers, the ones who saw Pete with their own eyes, knew this was straight-up malarkey.
In 2012, a purple squirrel was captured in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, after which he became the hottest thing on the internet (I must have missed this phenomenon), quickly establishing his own social media accounts. He was released two days later. Again, people attempted to logically explain the magic purple fur with local hydraulic fracking and the ‘ole chewing on pens theory.
Later that same year in Pennsylvania, a hunter captured and released a purple squirrel while on a deer hunt. Photographs of the squirrel led to more theories as to the reason for the exotic coloration.
So, to answer your question, while there are no such things as purple squirrels, technically…there are. (Unicorns, there’s hope for you yet.)
Back to recruiting. In theory, this coveted “purple squirrel” would handle the large variety of responsibilities of a job description with basically no training, allowing businesses to function with fewer employees, though it is commonly asserted that the effort seeking them is often wasted. Some people say being more open to candidates who don’t have all the skills, or perhaps retraining existing employees, are two sensible alternatives to this fruitless search. Because damn, those purple squirrels are hard to come by.
I can vouch for that. I’ve been looking for my own personal purple squirrel for years. And they weren’t wrong, it’s been a long and grueling search. I too, often felt effort seeking my purple squirrel was wasted. I even tried being more open to candidates who didn’t have all the “skills and requirements,” though I found retraining other squirrels to take on the role of the purple squirrel was just as futile. I tried brown squirrels, black squirrels, gray squirrels, red squirrels, even a few of those crazy albino ones. While several of these squirrels were most definitely sensible alternatives, in the end I wasn’t willing to settle. I held out hope for my purple squirrel, even though I knew he was pretty unlikely to exist, or if he did, it was pretty unlikely I would find him.
That’s the thing about purple squirrels. You know exactly what they look like (purple + squirrel), so when you see one, you pretty much know when you’ve found it. There’s no confusing it for a brown squirrel or a red squirrel, for it is so uniquely purple and without a doubt, a squirrel. And a few weeks ago, I opened my door, and there it was, my purple squirrel. I didn’t even have to capture him, he just walked right in, and he’s been hanging around ever since.
Like others who’ve spotted a purple squirrel, I’ve spent the past month trying to explain away his fur, reason with logic over his existence, but the closer I look, the more vibrantly purple the fur becomes. And the craziest thing, he probably just looks like a regular ‘ole squirrel to other people, human even. But I assure you, he’s definitely a purple squirrel.
Imagine that, they really do exist.
I’ve been seated next to some interesting folks over countless miles across the skies, but my absolute favorite to date was next to a cargo pilot from California, let’s call him Bob. I took one look at him and just knew he was a talker. Before the plane even departed, we immediately bonded over our love of shitty red airline wine and made a pact with the flight attendant to keep the good stuff flowing.
Bob, a former passenger pilot who switched to cargo when he quickly realized boxes don’t complain, felt more like an old friend than a stranger I met ten minutes ago (shitty airplane wine has magical powers). I heard all about his lovely wife and two children, the oldest with autism, their family vacations, the non-profit arts and crafts shop he and his wife hold in their garage for autistic children. I learned about his love of surfing and how he takes as many friends as he can fit into his private plane and lands on remote islands, chasing the big waves. How they load up dune buggies and tear across Death Valley, spending nights camped out in the desert. I probably saw over 100 family photos on his iPad as he hopped from adventure to adventure, revealing a life made of dreams.
At some point the conversation turned to the Appalachian Trail of my past and the Pacific Crest Trail of my future. Bob heard a little about my journey, asked a few questions, and excitedly concluded:
“Oh, so you’re a prepper!”
“I’m a-what now?”
And that’s when I met my first real life Prepper. Bob has a few RVs hidden all over the country, stockpiled with the ten essentials, some questionable essentials and some definite nonessentials. He’s also a part of several groups located all over the country. So for example, if he finds himself in New York if/when whatever he is preparing for actually occurs, he’s got a New York group to take him in until he can make it to home base. What is he prepping for exactly? Doomsday? A government overthrow? Aliens? I didn’t ask, I didn’t care, I was just thrilled at the unexpected turn our conversation had taken. Fascinated and a bit terrified my eyes would give my inner thoughts away, I immediately asked if I could be a part of his group. He gave me his card.
Don’t worry, I haven’t actually contacted him…yet. But it’s interesting how he connected his life, preparing for the end, for civil unrest, for something bad, with my life on the trail, preparing for the beginning of something great, an adventure by choice, one I make happen.
As a long distance hiker, I prepare myself the best I can, do the proper research, get the proper gear, but you simply can’t prepare yourself for everything that crosses your path walking over 2,650 miles through every single (save one) ecosystem North America has to offer. Shoot, you can’t even prepare yourself for the things that happen before you take your first step on the trail.
I mean, just a few weeks ago, my better hiking half Emily and I were giddy over the approach of Day 1 just over the horizon, but now due to unforeseen health concerns, I may or may not be walking toward Canada alone. How do you prepare yourself for losing your adventure buddy, cribbage rival, personal motivator, logical voice of reason, wine-guzzling, Bachelor-watching, partner-in-crime? You can’t. You just sort of have to accept reality and rearrange expectations.
Was I prepared for a solo hike? No. Can I do a solo hike? Yes. Reality accepted, expectations rearranged.
Obviously it’s not that simple, and I am still accepting and rearranging, but that’s sort of what thru-hiking is all about. Encountering challenge upon challenge and figuring out how to successfully move on, move forward, reach your goal (but not the end, I’ve learned there is no end in thru-hiking, just a lot of new beginnings), even if you can’t do it the way you imagined.
I expect to do a lot more accepting and rearranging on this hike. The Sierras currently have 164% average snowpack or something insane like that. I’ve read several articles that mention hiking the PCT this year will be closer to mountaineering than hiking. I picture deep snow on the mountain passes, rushing rivers I will have to ford as all that snow melts, the cold, the wet, the endless postholing, slipping, cautious stepping, questioning my sanity, ability, and strength. I may be forced to turn around, walk miles upstream to find a safe place to cross, spend hours covering one mile. I may get injured, run out of food or water, lose the trail, lose my footing, lose my mind.
And I quite literally cannot wait.
Am I fully prepared for everything that can happen out there? Nah, I can’t predict the future. Who knows how these next five months will play out. But I believe with an open mind, some acceptance and rearranging, everything will work out just fine. Also, we’ll define “fine” at a later date.
On another note, I do now have a rooftop tent on my truck and I am road-tripping to Campo with a man who lives in a converted Sprinter Van. I may be more of a prepper than I thought.
**Originally posted on thetrek.co***
Back when I played with Barbies, the accessory I wanted most for my main gal was that sweet red Barbie Ferrari convertible. Why? So she wasn’t stuck in my room and could explore other places (duh).
I get claustrophobic on tiny islands. On a boat to Santorini, I stifled my panic attack, pretended I was an island girl because I had willingly signed up for this adventure with my friend Alex. It’s not that I hate beautiful, tropical locations. I hate the fact that if I need to escape, I depend on someone else to get me out of there. We rented a car on Naxos and drove around the entire island in like an hour. I took an ATV from one end of Santorini to the other in about as much time. When I reached the end, I remember my throat tightening, thinking, nononononono, where is the rest, there must be more. I need space to roam on my own.
Some twenty-five years ago, my very brave parents packed three of us kids into the back of their car and drove us out to explore the glory of the West, not once but twice. On both trips I kept a very detailed journal of all the amazing things I saw, all the food I ate (BLT, every meal), all the random adventures we had outside of the car. You can feel the magic in the story I created in my little head, excitement pops from the pages penned long ago. Turns out, two decades later, the road trip still hasn’t lost its sparkle for me.
While thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, I gained a new appreciation for the automobile. Wheels became our lifeline, we counted on the kindness of strangers to whisk our tired bodies away to civilization. People with these coveted machines were magicians, transporting us anywhere from three to 20+ miles up the road to the nearest Dollar General for resupply, taking us to a much needed shower, beer, or post office. And though I consider my Spacehorse and Raleigh family, ain’t nobody picking me up on their bicycle out here. (Though I did take a very questionable ride from a stranger on a motor trike blasting Nickelback outside of Helen, GA.) Cars served a glorious purpose. And pickup trucks became my straight-up heroes. People never seemed to mind throwing us in the back with the rest of the cargo.
There is a certain kind of freedom that comes with a full tank of gas, undefined time and an endless map.
I left Wisconsin last week not knowing where I was really going, but knowing I needed to get out there. As soon as I passed Chicago, a drive I’ve made a million times, I started to feel what I craved, the magic from my childhood journals. I got lost on the back dirt roads of Indiana, cruised through the green Kentucky countryside, bopped along through Tennessee, and onto Arkansas. I zigzagged through the winding roads of the Ouachita National Forest and the Ozarks, crossed the Buffalo River and rolled up and down over Missouri highways on my way to the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota. I gazed in awe at Wyoming’s rugged landscape, clutched my steering wheel, white knuckles willing my car to stay on the windy, ice-covered roads of North Dakota.
I spend most hours of the day doing exactly what I set out to do: drive. Alone with my thoughts, no podcasts, no music, which is basically against my religion, there’s always music. I’ve avoided cities, even blowing past Nashville and Memphis, two of my favorite places to get lost, because this wasn’t their time. I was with my car, and cars don’t have much of a place in a city. When I do explore cities, I prefer to fly, take the train or bus, use public transportation, my feet, at the very most a bicycle. Driving cars in concrete jungles stresses me out, I feel uncomfortable, clunky, out-of-place. But on these back country roads, I feel right at home, relaxed, free, knowing at any time I can pull over and nap, call it a night or keep driving, literally anything I want. I can go anywhere on the map without being honked at or noticed.
Back on the AT, after hiking more than 1,800 miles to get to Mount Washington, NH, climbing the whole damn rock mine of a mountain and being greeted at the top by a bunch of tourists in flips-flops and perfume, I remember thinking, wait, I COULD HAVE TAKEN A TRAIN UP HERE? Not that it took away from the effort I had just put in, it was just…strange. But now I am the flip-flop tourist, sans perfume and flip-flops. In situations where the options are: you can hike from A to B, OR just take route C in a car and see the same thing, I’ve become a solid C student. Because I didn’t take this road trip to hike. Right now I am chasing a very specific freedom to get to a place, to a feeling I know my feet alone can’t take me.
One night I snuggled up in my 0° sleeping bag in Tennessee and the very next night I slept on top of my 45° bag in Arkansas. I love how I can take three sleeping bags with me and not worry about weight. I love how my FJ serves as my packhorse for everything. I’m fascinated by how the landscape seems to instantly change as my car races over invisible state lines, as if each state is immediately trying to define itself, tell visitors why it’s a special place, what makes it the Show-Me State, the Natural State, Legendary, Big Sky Country, Like No Place on Earth, even if I’m just passing through for a few miles.
I love hiking, I love where it takes my mind and body, how it calms my soul and frees my spirit. But that’s all I’ll be doing in a month, and I love so many things. One very valuable lesson I learned while hiking the Appalachian Trail: taking half a year off to hike a trail is not a vacation. It’s freaking hard work, arguably harder than many jobs. And knowing I am about to voluntarily submit myself to something so incredibly mentally challenging and physically exhausting, I just wanted something to be easy for a little while. I just wanted to drive, see where the endless roads could take me.
Maybe I should be training, like I see everyone else on Instagram and the online hiker community doing, meticulously preparing for the PCT, getting my pack weight down, figuring out calories. Maybe I should be planning food drops and testing out my gear in the backcountry instead of sleeping in my new tent next to my parked car, drinking boxed wine straight from the bag while I write this. Maybe I should be hiking up these mountains every chance I get, instead of powering up “low-maintained, high-clearance vehicles only” roads to get there. But I’m not. Right now, if my car can take me, I am driving there. I am on a road trip, after all.
And these back roads were built for wheels.
*Posted originally on The Trek